From time to time I run across the question, “What is your favorite time of year?” and I automatically reply, “Summer.” It’s not just that summer is a comfortable time for me, as I have a hard time dealing with cold weather. It’s not just because when I was a child, summer was an extended respite from school and a teacher I feared and hated (although that is probably what comes in second.)
No, it is a specific time in my life that evokes tender emotions like few other things in life. The very word “Summer” harkens back to days when I was a child, when we lived in the country and the lazy hazy days drifted into each other like floating branches on a lake. Summer evokes those bright days when the trees were heavy with leaves and the thick warm breeze brought a welcome cool relief to the skin. Each summer day lasted four days’ worth of time to a child of seven. May barely had any school-free days left in it, and August bore white-hot temperatures and the looming threat of school, but June and July bore the best of times for me.
In the early morning hours when dew was still fresh on the grass, the house was usually empty when I awoke. The family was often out in the garden, a fenced-off sloping span of soil where Papa and Mama planted what they hoped would be enough to feed their six offspring. My older sisters and brother would be out helping weed or pluck bugs from plants, or water with the improvised watering sprinkler Papa fashioned from a coffee can. If I outgrew my shoes by summer my choices were to go barefoot or wear the hell-spawn rubber devices of torment known as flip-flops. Oh god I hated flip-flops. The skin between my toes never toughened up to bear the abrasion of the little rubber piece that held the sole to the top straps. Going barefoot meant getting my feet damp or stepping on the inevitable goats-head stickers, neither of which was a comfortable option. If I was lucky Mama might get some cheap tennis shoes at the Dollar General, and I wore those things out going hither and yon.
As the youngest (and unplanned bonus child) I served as family mascot, just another mouth to feed and as the recipient of my older sisters’ teasing. They were close enough in age to neither need nor want to play with me very much, and there weren’t enough Barbies, Midges or rag dolls to go around anyway. Mama and Papa were busy with the worry of how to feed and clothe us all, and playing was the last thing on their minds. Sometimes my youngest older sister Buddy would play with me, because I made up stories and characters – something I had done since I was three – and Buddy liked to hear the stories and would ask questions about the adventures. She sometimes joined in with my stories, but her characters were a lot like her – stubborn, kind of bossy and blunt. Most of the time she let me tell the tales. When she joined the other sisters I was alone again, and I learned to cope.
I found my own playmate within myself that I called Michael. Michael was of course my constant companion, my inner conscience who was much braver, bolder and resourceful than I. Whenever I was puzzled by things that made no sense to me, I called on Michael to help figure it out (“why wasn’t I born a boy, why do I have to be a girl?” — “I’m the boy you are inside. You can be both.”) when I was scared (“I can’t go over there, there’s a wasp nest up on the rafter and I’m scared”- – “Just stay calm. I’ll guide you. It will be all right.”) When I had to settle something in my mind, I talked things over with my inner Michael. Michael kept me from getting lonely, and helped keep my temper in check because the last thing a kid needs to do, is piss off his/her older sisters with a cheeky remark. Michael reassured me during the many times I wondered about Death and what happens when people die, and what’s this God thing all about? Michael helped me explore the human condition (“Why are we poor; did we do something wrong or do people just make up stories about rich people so poor people can have something to look forward to?” — “We didn’t do anything wrong. We’re light-blood Indians; that’s just the way it is for us. Rich people are real but some don’t know anything. People born on third base always think they won the game because they’ve never had to bat.”)
The constant whirr of cicadas was the White Noise of my childhood summers, and I immediately associate the sound with the pleasures of warm weather play. The whirr promised a harvest of spent cicada exoskeletons clinging to the rough bark of the surrounding trees. In our Oklahoma countryside cicadas were everywhere. I gathered buckets upon buckets of locust husks so I could make up stories about the Great Locust Army battles: the shed skins of the creatures looked like otherworldly beings that faced off on my dirt yard battlefield. I picked out the largest skins to act as generals, and they clashed in epic battles. Oh the carnage; oh the gallantry of the exoskeleton ranks as they marched forth to victory or defeat!
The hot afternoons meant occasional trips to Sand Creek behind our house. None of us knew how to swim, which was fine because Sand Creek didn’t have enough water to swim in, and the hotter the summer the lesser the amount of water in it. We could wade with the best, though, and we wandered up and down the creek from up where the neighboring farm strung a fence across the creek, to down where the creek ran under the blacktop through a culvert. I was not allowed to go to the creek alone, and my sisters weren’t supposed to take me any further than the fence or blacktop. They explored all over the acreages on their own (never letting Mama or Papa know, of course!) but as long as I was in tow, they obeyed the Rule.
When I think of it now, I’m astonished that we were never bitten by snakes. My sisters were careful to check out the deeper spots in the creek to make sure there were no water moccasins or copperheads or rattlers, but Papa had prepared them for life in the country. Running across a snake would have been more of an adventure to them. (“What will I do if I see a snake, Michael?” — “Run like hell; I’m going to.”)
We had no running water, so the cold fresh well water brought up from eighty feet below ground was a constant task for everyone – everyone but me. I was never allowed to do the things my sisters did, and they occasionally expressed their displeasure that I never had to do chores. I wanted to, but I was a painfully thin child and Mama was afraid I would get tangled up in the well rope, or the heavy tube of water would pull me off my feet and I would plummet head first down the well shaft. My sisters agreed that yes, that sounded like something The Kid would do, so they didn’t complain about my lack of water fetching. I was not asked to do the dishes or sweep the four rooms of the house, either. It was enough of a task for Mama to keep my sisters from fussing with each other every day over who did the dishes the day before; she did not want to include a fifth voice to the chorus of complaints. As a result, I never really learned how to clean a house.
(I still find it highly amusing that my ex-husband thought every female knew how to keep house, as if the ownership of a uterus also granted the natural instinct to sweep, mop, cook and sew. He found the one girl in his life who had no inclination whatsoever to want to learn, either, and in his ignorance and baseless assumption, married me since he thought I would. He grumbled and complained that I was a lousy housewife. “Well, I didn’t marry a house,” I told him. “I married you, and apparently that’s punishment enough for both of us.” Michael and I had successfully melded by then.)
Summer evenings were hot and sticky, where even the refreshing splash in the creek earlier in the day, did not help. My memories of this time of day are filled with the recall of card tables sitting outside on the lawn, where my parents and sister Buddy and maybe visiting aunts or uncles would play card games or dominoes. We might have just had a fine dinner of fried chickens and light-as-air sweet rolls, washed down with Lipton’s tea in colorful aluminum tumblers. Ginny and Lela would get some good melons from our landlord’s garden. He didn’t mind, he invited us to get some. A few watermelons from a 20-acre melon patch did not make even the slightest of dents in his harvest. The family cut open the melons and ate the sweet juicy red flesh, and partook of the nightly Melon Seed-Spitting Contest across the backyard. The domino pieces clicked during the sometimes rowdy games, and sister Annie might get out her guitar and play to the deepening twilight. I sat back in awe as the nightly light show of lightening bugs appeared, their little tail lights winking and blinking to our amusement. We caught them in glass jars with holes poked in the lids, adding water and berries and leaves to feed them. Someone usually let them go free after a while; no one wanted to kill a beautiful lightening bug.
Then as the stars came out, Annie got out her star charts and we all went out into the 40-acre field in front of our house to look at the sky. In those days, moonless nights were pitch black – there was no light pollution from neighboring towns as there is now. The Milky Way Galaxy stretched across our heavens like the marvelous display that it is, and we identified constellations and planets to our hearts’ delight. Whippor-wills emitted their mournful cries, and we hushed our voices so we could hear them. To this day I long to hear the whippoor-will call. They are shy birds and, like the Milky Way, are elusive in the increasingly populated countryside.
Some nights we slept on cots out in the yard, when the house was too hot for the open windows to bring in enough night breeze to make us comfortable. If the mosquitoes were thick my sisters tossed sheets over themselves to ward off the pests, which sort of made the whole night-breeze business rather moot. (“What’s the point in sleeping outside for the breeze if you can’t feel it through the sheet, Michael?” — “I don’t know. Your sisters are inexplicable.”)
Summer was berry-picking; summer was using the fleshy side of our hands to make roadways in the sand so our plastic horse figures would have a place to stand. Summer was biting into sun-warmed red tomatoes fresh from the vine. Summer was running through the 40-acre field on the lookout for the landlord’s cows as they lumbered by. Summer was climbing the stacks of hay bales in the barn. Summer was pouring out the chicken feed in patterns on the ground so the chickens would spell out words as they ate.
Summer was boldly colored flowers at Honor Heights Park in Muskogee. Summer was long hot trips to Muskogee to visit sour-faced aunts who did not like me, or to visit happy laughing aunts who did like me. Summer was visits from Uncle Tommy, our most favorite of all relatives, and going to visit Uncle Orville who had twinkling blue eyes and the kindest smile and laugh in the whole world.
Summer was noodling for catfish in the river under the watchful eye of our Papa. Summer was hanging out clothes to quickly dry in the hot breeze. Summer was catching grasshoppers and playing with Papa’s hunting dogs. Summer was finding abandoned kittens in boxes on the side of the road and nursing them back to health. Summer was effortlessly tanning as brown as a stone, unaware that white people worked hard at achieving this goal.
Summer was going shopping for clothes and shoes in August; summer was knowing as the youngest there would be no clothes handed down to me that ever fit properly, and going to the Dollar General store was an absolute must for us all. Summer was the yearly shearing of my hair to keep me cool all season, only to have hair that was not quite long enough to pull into a ponytail by fall and thus having a Bushmaster Hairdo upon return to school.
Summer was listening to the Top 40 on the radio and learning all the British Invasion songs by heart. Summer was listening to my sisters harmonize, and then laugh at themselves when they hit all the right notes and sounded good. They had too much modesty to boast on their abilities, but they all had/have fine voices.
Summer was the exhilaration of the sudden fierce winds of a summer storm, the terrifying sickly green tint of a tornado cloud, and the heavenly smell of rain-soaked earth after the storm passed. Yes, yes that’s it.
Summer was heaven on earth.